Super Bowl Pirates Fined $12,000

Most pirates in the United States operate on sporadic schedules. The 24/7 in-your-face operations may be the best-known and most-heralded, but the vast majority of unlicensed broadcasting is done on the sly in the hopes of staying under the FCC’s radar.
The rules are different, however, if the broadcast piracy involves professional sports. A nebulous outfit called Global Radio, Inc. operated pirate stations on multiple frequencies during this year’s Super Bowl and got away with it with a slap on the wrist compared to what most busted microradio stations receive.
Global Radio reportedly specializes in “event broadcast services” and applied to the FCC for six “experimental” FM licenses for use inside San Diego, CA’s Qualcomm Stadium. These temporary stations would give fans in the stands their choice of play-by-play announcer teams to listen to. Game details would be broadcast to the surrounding parking lot and little radios were even set up in the stadium’s bathrooms, so fans wouldn’t have to miss a second of the action on the field.
The FCC authorized Global Radio to use two frequencies for its Super Bowl broadcasts: 93.7 and 96.9 MHz. Use of the other four channels was denied on the grounds that they were too close to existing local FM stations and might interfere with them.
A massive frequency coordination plan had been forged prior to the Super Bowl due to the huge influx of wireless traffic that would besiege the stadium. Conducting one remote broadcast is hard enough, but several dozen radio and television networks and stations, law enforcement agencies, event staff, and stadium crew all needed their own interference-free communication networks for game day. Wireless communication even takes place between coaches and players, via specially encrypted two-way helmet radios. Very specific slices of spectrum were assigned to everyone, from the walkie-talkies used by concessions vendors to the video feeds transmitted from the blimps that would fly overhead.
No one was permitted to stray outside their allotted territory, and game-day interference problems were quickly pounced upon and corrected by a bevy of broadcast engineers. FCC personnel from the San Diego field office were also on-site. The tightly-controlled system worked well: for example, a San Diego Police Department helicopter patrolling overhead was found to be using an unauthorized frequency that interfered with channels previously slated to serve NBC camera feeds coming from the blimps. The chopper ended up moving channels to accommodate the corporate media traffic and the hundreds of millions who watched the game from home noticed nothing.
In full view (and earshot) of everyone present at the Super Bowl, Global Radio, Inc. commenced FM broadcasts on six frequencies within Qualcomm Stadium. Two of them had been licensed – the other four were not. Five stations used three-watt transmitters and one used 1/2 watt, but all clearly violated the FCC’s unlicensed broadcasting rules. Agents at the stadium made no moves to shut the pirate frequencies down during the game, although Global Radio has since been slapped with a $12,000 Notice of Apparent Liability for its broadcasts on three of the four verboten channels. There were no reports of interference.
This punishment works out to $3,000 per pirate station. Most individual microradio operators are regularly socked with $10,000 fines for appropriating a single frequency. In those cases, the FCC tacks on the extra $7,000 as a way to send a message about how serious it takes the pirate radio problem. Just this week a Florida man was sentenced to nine months in prison for broadcasting without a license.
By the usual standards it would seem that Global Radio is getting off easy. The FCC claims it will deal harshly on pirates when there’s proof of “willful and repeated violation” of its rules; operating on four frequencies simultaneously from the Super Bowl after having been denied licenses for them certainly meets this criteria.
It is also not the first time the FCC has given the velvet glove treatment to corporate pirate radio operators. Last year a speedway running a 1-watt FM station got its fine reduced from $10,000 to $8,000 by pleading ignorance and economic necessity; a speedway in Texas successfully called on its congressman in 1999 to keep the FCC from shutting down its pirate TV operation; and in 2002 the FCC fined Enron a measly $7,500 for operating several illegal radio communications systems, some for as long as five years license-free.